Sunday, October 16, 2005

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Sometimes Lady Luck wears cardinal and gold.

In one of the wildest big-game finishes in recent history, Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart spun backward into the end zone from a yard out with three seconds left to let the top-ranked Trojans nip No.9 Notre Dame 34-31 before a stunned packed house at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Wow, what a great finish!” said USC coach Pete Carroll after watching his Trojans (6-0) extend their incredible run to 28 consecutive wins, keeping alive their hopes of an unprecedented third consecutive national title. “For an energy junkie like myself, it can’t get any better than that. To be challenged right to the very last tick of the clock is really special.”

Leinart’s game-clinching score ended a chaotic stretch run which saw three lead changes during the game’s final five minutes as the traditional power programs swapped salvos in an instant classic before an upset-frenzied Irish crowd of 80,795.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed with the way the game ended, but the last thing I told our kids was not to hang their heads,” said first-year Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis after his Irish (4-2) expertly executed a superbly crafted game plan that chewed up the clock while keeping USC’s explosive offense off the field. “That was a gutty performance. That was a slugfest. That was a street fight out there.”

The gripping final sequence began when USC took possession trailing the Irish 24-21 with 7:28 left and the crowd sensing an upset as a full moon peeked over the Eastern edge of college football’s most storied stadium. But now the Trojans, who had rallied from second-half deficits in two of their last three games, finally found some offensive rhythm with the season hanging in the balance, scorching 80 yards down the field in just over two minutes behind their devastating offensive trio of Leinart, junior tailback Reggie Bush and sophomore wideout Dwayne Jarrett.

The electric Bush, who finished the game with a Heisman-worthy 160 yards rushing and three scores on just 15 carries despite a sore right knee, consummated the go-ahead drive when he exploded left and sprinted 9 yards to the pylon, putting the Trojans up 28-24 with 5:09 left.

“I said it earlier this week — he’s the reincarnation of Marshall Faulk,” Weis said. “He can do it all. He’s the most dynamic player in the game. Every time he touches it, he’s a threat to take it all the way, and he did that on us a couple of times today.”

But Bush was not to be outdone by Notre Dame Heisman candidate Brady Quinn, the cagey 6-foot-4 junior quarterback from Dublin, Ohio, who can beat you with his arm, his legs, head or heart.

And decked out for the day in ND’s rarely used upset emerald uniforms, Quinn and Co. responded with the game’s most impressive drive, covering 87 yards in just eight plays. Quinn, 4-for-4 on the drive, shredded the Trojans’ defense with a series of slant passes to primary targets Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall and then sent the home crowd into hysteria when he called his own number from the USC 5-yard line, scampered right and stretched his right arm into the end zone to put the Irish ahead 31-28 with 2:08 left.

Quinn’s numbers were somewhat modest, 19-for-35 for 264 yards with a touchdown and an interception. But the junior scrambled for 21 more net yards despite absorbing three sacks and beautifully executed an offense that dominated time of possession (38:40), playing keepaway from the vaunted USC assault which entered the game on pace to set an NCAA record for total offense (640.4 yards per game). Frankly, he was one fourth-down completion on USC’s next drive from becoming the Heisman front-runner and college football’s feel-good poster boy.

But there is a reason USC entered the game with 27 consecutive wins and two consecutive national titles — the Trojans have spent that last three years simply refusing to lose. Aside from Carroll, the common denominator throughout that brilliant run has been Leinart.

So when the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Heisman winner and sometime surfer traipsed onto the field with just 1:58 left and USC’s dynasty on the line, few doubted there were more fireworks in store. And Leinart did not disappoint.

On fourth-and-9 from his own 25, Leinart saw Jarrett split left and Notre Dame corner Ambrose Wooden locked on him in man-press coverage. With typical California cool, Leinart audibled to Jarrett on a fly route and then delivered a clutch laser that redefined perfection. Despite excellent coverage, Leinart’s pass hit Jarrett in stride at the Notre Dame 40-yard line, and the sophomore receiver scampered to the Notre Dame 13 before Wooden could bring him down.

Two Bush runs later, the Trojans were out of timeouts but had a first down at the Notre Dame 2 with 27 seconds left. Like Quinn before him, Leinart tried to end the game with a hurtling dive at the left corner of the end zone but was hit and fumbled the ball out of bounds less than a foot from the goal line with seven seconds left.

The official timer, no doubt a Notre Dame fan, allowed the clock to expire though the field officials were clearly waving for a stoppage, touching off a premature celebration on both the ND sideline and among the Irish faithful, who spilled onto the field prepared to level the goal posts.

Once order was restored, most assumed Carroll would kick an overtime-forcing field goal or try one quick pass into the end zone. But the self-professed adrenaline nut rolled the dice and put the ball in Leinart’s hands for a one-play, glory-or-goat proposition.

Leinart snapped the ball and surged forward, hit a sturdy Notre Dame wall at the goal line and then rolled left and backward into the end zone with a possible assist from Bush.

“I’m still speechless,” Leinart said some 30 minutes later. “I’m in shock. I imagine this will go down as one of the greatest games ever played.”

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